Guest Column

Five Lessons for the World from COVID-19 

By Joe Kumbun 7 April 2020

The coronavirus has infected over a million people and taken thousands of people’s lives, due primarily to flawed governance and weak coordination among nations. The infection rate and death toll continue to rise—a catastrophe born of our failures and lack of preparation.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic is also a wakeup call for the world to reassess its governance systems and its priorities around innovation, as well as ethical and moral questions. The pandemic has already given the world five bitter lessons.

#1: Reassess the Balance of Military and Health Expenditures

Almost every nation spends billions of dollars on its military. Nations compete to build weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and military vehicles ranging from drones to aircraft carriers.

As world leaders zero in on this security competition, it has led to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and is now surfacing again in tensions between the United States and China.

The combined military expenditure of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) permanent members is more than a trillion dollars. If this amount were invested instead in healthcare, millions of people would see the benefits in terms of preventing and combating disease. Similarly, in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), some countries spend more on their militaries than they do on health care.

Many of these countries now rely on donations to fight the coronavirus, including financial aid and equipment like virus testing machines, from foreign countries and the World Health Organization. Private banks, companies and individuals have to donate medical supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and masks as well as money to support these governments to combat the virus.

Most countries spend billions of dollars annually on their military capabilities but such powers can do little to combat the pandemic. COVID-19 has already shown the world’s leaders they must reassess their choices to spend more on their militaries than on health.

#2: Strengthen Coordination

The number of COVID-19 cases and the pandemic’s death toll worldwide show a failure of coordination among countries.

Since Donald Trump began pursuing his ‘American First’ foreign policy agenda, many experts have argued that multilateralism is dead. The impacts of weak coordination among nations have been clear in the efforts to fight terrorist groups like ISIS and combat wildfires in the Brazilian Amazon and Australia.

The outbreak of COVID-19 is only the tip of the iceberg. There are a plethora of lingering challenges such as transnational terrorism, climate change, natural disasters and other diseases. It is crucial for the world to learn its lesson and strengthen coordination among nations to address future challenges.

#3: Future of Technology 

Developed countries have spent billions on exploring the unknown, beyond our geographical boundaries. These efforts range from biological engineering and the Internet to smart cars, quantum computing and autonomous weapons systems.

Some technological advances are helpful in preventing and combating COVID-19. In Italy, for example, doctors used robots to check the pulses of highly infectious patients on life support. But the future of technology, for instance the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), must focus more on designs that support humans, rather than bringing destruction.

#4: Refrain from Unethical and Immoral Behavior

The origins of COVID-19 are hotly contested. Some claim that COVID-19 originated with animals at a wet market in China’s Wuhan city. Some people eat wild animals such as bats, pangolins, tapirs and snakes, and there have been claims that these animals transferred the virus to humans. On the other hand, China has accused US military delegates of bringing the virus to Wuhan when the city hosted the Military World Games in October 2019. There is another conspiracy theory that China designed the virus as a biological weapon and it was mistakenly released from the lab.

Whether or not these theories are true, any country that develops biological weapons must scrap these plans immediately. Likewise, China must give up its appetite for wildlife. Both of these pursuits are unethical and immoral, and if humans continue with these sorts of activities, we will suffer from more deadly and contagious diseases in the future.

#5: Prepare for the Future

The COVID-19 pandemic also gives the world a lesson on how to prepare for future challenges. The world has sufficient time to zero in on innovations that can predict, prevent and mitigate crises, disasters and diseases before they happen. Based on the lessons from COVID-19, the world must initiate a global platform to design effective, realistic and coordinated plans for future generations.

If we learn the lessons of the pandemic, we will be like the ant that spends the summer saving food for the winter—prepared for what comes. But if we fail to learn the lessons, we will be like the grasshopper that dies in the winter.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State. He can be reached at [email protected].

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